(Not) showing us the money: How Florida makes a merry-go-round of campaign cash

Big money in Jacksonville’s 2023 mayoral race reveals how the state's relaxed campaign finance laws result in budget-busting spending.

Photo by Matías Baglietto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A year ahead of Jacksonville’s mayoral elections, one mayoral candidate raised a million dollars and already dropped out. Another has raised $2.5 million. Two more have raised $489,000 and $210,000. A fifth candidate hasn’t even announced his campaign, yet his political committee has raised $4.5 million.

Welcome to municipal politics in Jacksonville – where money is king.

Jacksonville politics transformed seven years ago when the top two candidates embraced the state's relaxed campaign-finance laws, sending contributions past $9.2 million. Since then, candidates have used the lax rules to build up their war chests, in some cases fundraising ever since Mayor Lenny Curry used the tactic to win office nearly eight years ago.

It’s “a lot of money,” Michael Binder, a University of North Florida political scientist, said of the Jacksonville mayoral candidates’ haul. “Whether that buys a vote or not, it certainly buys access, and it absolutely buys you facetime and influence.”

Big money in Jacksonville’s 2023 mayoral race reveals how Florida’s lax campaign finance laws result in budget-busting spending in the races for political office, even at the local level, across the state. All told, candidates and their committees have raised more than $8.6 million for a mayoral race that is still a year away. The coming election is sure to break contribution records.

Daniel Davis, a former state representative who now heads the local chamber of commerce, has raised about $4.5 million in his own political committee in the last eight years. Davis has not yet announced his run for mayor, but Florida’s campaign finance laws allow him to raise funds through a committee he’s had since he left the Legislature eight years ago. He’s spent about $570,000 so far.

On top of that, the chamber’s political committee raised and spent another $1.5 million in that time, boosting his and the chamber’s political sway.

Davis’ likely main opponents – Republican City Council members LeAnna Cumber and Al Ferraro, and Democrat Donna Deegan – have raised another $3.2 million combined, and Councilman Matt Carlucci raised $1 million before dropping out of the mayoral race. In part, Carlucci told City & State Florida he believed he had tapped out any campaign contributions he could get, and he believed $1 million wouldn't be enough to win Jacksonville’s mayorship.

In Florida, donors can give only up to $1,000 each to candidates, but they can give an unlimited amount to political committees. Unlike under federal law, Florida allows candidates and certain types of committees to coordinate. As a result, Jacksonville’s richest denizens often write five- and six-figure checks to committees:

  • The Petway family, who built wealth in real estate and insurance, has given about $525,000 to local candidates in the last year and a half, including $200,000 to Davis’ committee; $100,000 to a committee for T.K. Waters, a Republican candidate for sheriff; and $60,000 to a committee for City Councilman Nick Howland.
  • Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver, the former Jacksonville Jaguars owners, have given about $350,000 to local candidates and committees. Wayne Weaver gave $100,000 to Carlucci, while Delores Barr Weaver gave $25,000 to Deegan. Both gave a combined $199,000 to a committee for Democratic candidate for sheriff Lakesha Burton.
  • Businessman John Baker has given $260,000 to local candidates and committees in the last year and a half, including $100,000 to Davis’ committee, $34,000 to Burton’s, $27,000 to two committees associated with Councilman Reggie Gaffney and $25,000 to one of Mayor Curry’s committees.
  • Michael Ward gave $126,000 to Burton's committee and another $100,000 to Carlucci, though Carlucci returned most of that. He’s also given $10,000 to Jack Meeks, an independent candidate for City Council.

Absent public polling, monthly stories about candidates' fundraising act as a thermometer that measures who’s up or down. And while some benefit from Florida’s lax rules, others have struggled.

Deegan, a former First Coast News TV host and founder of the Donna Foundation, raised more than $1.2 million in a 2020 bid for Congress in the deep-red 4th Congressional District. She raised that directly as a candidate under stricter federal rules with campaign contribution limits. Now, despite having no contribution limits, she has raised about $489,000, behind Davis and Cumber but ahead of Ferraro.

Cumber and her husband have given her campaign and its committee about $275,000 in their own money. Their affiliated businesses have also given. New Fortress Energy and Florida East Coast Industries, where Cumber’s husband works, have given about $250,000 to Cumber’s JAX First committee. Ferraro's conservative populist campaign has raised about $210,000. 

Davis spent the 2000s on City Council and then served as the Westside’s state representative from 2010 through 2014. Before joining the chamber, he also worked with the politically powerful Northeast Florida Builders Association. As a legislator, he raised and spent about $155,000 for his Building a Better Economy committee, which said it existed “to assist candidates who desire to reduce government bureaucracy and create a stronger business climate in Florida.”

Then in 2013 Florida changed its laws to allow unlimited contributions to political committees in exchange for the promise of transparency. Davis reformed his committee as Building a Better Economy, which listed “business” as the committee’s interest. This January, Davis changed the committee’s interest to “political,” removed himself as treasurer and changed its mailing address to a Tallahassee one.

Davis, as CEO of JAX Chamber, has also strengthened his political standing, thanks in part to the chamber’s committee, JaxBiz. Davis’ Building a Better Economy has given $76,000 to JaxBiz, and JaxBiz has given about $30,000 back to Building a Better Economy. Since the 2015 mayoral election, JaxBiz has sent about 43% of its $1.3 million in expenses to Data Targeting Research – the same political consulting firm used by Mayor Lenny Curry and hired by Davis’ committee – including almost every dollar the chamber’s committee spent in 2021 and 2022.

The use of political committees can help donors hide who they support by funneling money through various committees with opaque purposes. Many of Jacksonville's top donors have given to committees like these, which don't say who they support or what they advocate in their advertising. There's no requirement that they make their advertisements public.

Political committees also often circulate contributions from one committee to another. For example, Mayor Lenny Curry and his political advisers often transfer money he raises to other committees, which then redistribute the funds. From January through March 2019, while he was facing re-election, Curry’s Jacksonville On The Rise committee gave $425,000 to the Citizens Speaking Out Committee. In those same months, Citizens Speaking Out gave $370,000 to six other committees, including $95,000 to one called Florida Shining. Florida Shining then gave $85,000 to Turning Jacksonville Blue. The committee sounds Democratic-leaning, but it funded mailers attacking Curry’s main foe on the City Council, Democrat Garrett Dennis, according to a Florida Politics story.

Turning Jacksonville Blue reported receiving only two other donations. Those donations came from two other Republican-aligned committees with the same address. After the campaign ended, Turning Jacksonville Blue gave the rest of its money to Liberty and Leadership Fund, a short-lived conservative committee that spent $43,000 on Data Targeting, Curry’s political consultant. As Binder put it, “It’s very easy to hide money.”

Donors and sometimes even candidates have no control over how political committees use their funds. For example, in 2020, Democrat Jimmy Midyette used Citizens for Clean Government to support his failed bid for county clerk. The committee mainly collected contributions from people with a more progressive bent like Barr Weaver and the Jacksonville National Organization for Women committee.

After the campaign, the committee still held about $2,000, but it changed tack. Contributions began coming in from conservatives, including $57,000 from Andrew Mayer, a top donor to Ferraro, the most right-leaning candidate in the mayoral race. The committee now supports Mat Nemeth, one of two Republicans running for sheriff. Midyette said the people officially running the committee had told him they decided to keep it operating. He said he wasn’t sure who or what it supported anymore, but he believed it was anti-establishment candidates and causes.

In the open sheriff’s race, six candidates and their committees have raised about $2.6 million. The top two candidates, Republican T.K. Waters and Democrat Burton, have each raised more than a million dollars. Nick Primrose, a former deputy general counsel to Gov. Ron DeSantis and now chairman of the Florida Elections Commission, said he believes the campaign finance laws don’t do enough to regulate political committees.

“Right now, we don’t have the teeth I’d like to have” in enforcing campaign finance laws, said Primrose, chief of regulatory compliance for the Jacksonville Port Authority. He told City & State Florida that even if a committee violates the law and faces a fine, then all someone has to do is disband the committee and form a new one to avoid paying a fine. The law should change, he said, so that the fine follows the treasurer or agent of a committee when they create new committees.

He also said he doesn’t think political committees should exist in perpetuity. In some cases, doing so allows an elected official to initially raise money for a committee and then continue using the committee long after they have stopped running for office. In other cases, it allows a committee to switch its purpose, as happened with Midyette’s committee.

“You can create a committee that sounds like it’s leaning one way or the other to convince a voter or a group of voters of whatever you’re putting on your mailer,” Primrose said. He also said he wants to limit the number of times committees can transfer funds. That would make it harder, he said, to hide what donors are funding.

“The integrity of the election process includes campaign finance transparency,” he said. “We just need to keep moving toward the end goal, which is transparency about who is supporting or opposing a candidate, constitutional amendment, whatever might come before the voters.”

Even without the requirements, some candidates already put additional restrictions on themselves. Carlucci, the city councilman, sent a letter to all of his donors, he said, asking if they wanted a refund after he dropped out of the mayor’s race. Legally, that wasn’t required. He could have continued to use the massive contributions for his re-election campaign, for his son’s nascent City Council campaign or for currying favors. Instead, he returned many of his major donations.

“It’s their damn money,” Carlucci explained. “I have a fiduciary duty in my mind. Some people, they get money and they keep it. That’s not in my DNA.”

This story was published in partnership with The Tributary, a nonprofit news organization. Andrew Pantazi is the founding editor of The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union. He can be reached at Andrew.Pantazi@JaxTrib.org.

NEXT STORY: The endorsements for Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates

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